Is Dad Stressed or Experiencing Paternal Postnatal Depression?

Here's how to tell whether your guy may be suffering from something more serious than new-daddy blues and what to do about it.

dad holding his baby on the couch

You've heard plenty of stories (among friends, on social media, or maybe even in celebrity tell-all books) of women experiencing postpartum depression. The postnatal depression you might not have heard about is PPND (paternal postnatal depression)—the one your partner may suffer from after your little bundle of joy arrives.

But PPND is very, very real: A recent study published in Pediatrics found that depression scores among new fathers increased by 68 percent during the first five years of their children's lives, a crucial time when it comes to bonding with Baby.

To help you (and your partner) learn more about this disorder, we talked to top experts in the field to find out why it happens and how to get help.

"Depression among new dads is not uncommon, and they're not alone," says Will Courtenay, PhD, LCSW, also known as "The Men's Doc," author of Dying to Be Men (Routledge, 2011), and the founder of the website SadDaddy.com. "The fact is, one in four new dads in the United States become depressed—which amounts to 3,000 dads who become depressed each day. It's normal for dads to need help as they enter fatherhood."

"I think the big issue for men is to take the depression seriously and be able to recognize it's really happening," says Christina Hibbert, PsyD, an expert on postpartum mental health and founder of the nonprofit organization, the Arizona Postpartum Wellness Coalition. She created a DVD on postpartum couples and said that when she presented it at a 2004 conference, it was the first time she remembers there being a discussion about the father's postpartum experience. "This isn't a weakness, you can't just will it away and try harder and it's going to be better. It's a major life change [you're experiencing]."

Why It Happens

You know that your hormones have been on a roller coaster ride since you got pregnant, and that they continue to change after junior arrives, but did you know that men experience hormone changes as well?

"Men's hormones change during pregnancy and after their babies are born," says Dr. Courtenay. "It's a double-whammy. Not only do our testosterone levels decrease, but our estrogen levels increase."

Those hormone changes make men biologically predisposed to depression right when the baby comes, says Dr. Hibbert.

Pairing those hormone fluctuations with the neurochemical changes that occur in the brain as a result of sleep deprivation can combine to create the perfect storm [for depression] that we see peak in the 3- to 6-month period, says Dr. Courtenay.

While a lack of sleep is probably the biggest culprit when it comes depression among new dads, other possible causes include a history of the disease, a dad's rocky relationship with his partner, financial problems or stress, and a sick, colicky, or premature baby. Men who've experienced the loss of loved ones—either in the adult years prior to becoming a parent or while growing up—are also at increased risk for depression.

Remember, mom: you're not the only one who's got a lot on her plate with your newborn; many fathers are anxious and stressed about their new responsibilities, as well.

"We're expecting fathers to be more involved in parenting than ever before, but most dads report being unprepared," says Dr. Courtenay. "So while most dads want to be involved, they don't really know what that looks like…and many new dads are uncertain about what to do. That uncertainty can quickly lead to anxiety, and we know that anxiety postpartum often leads to depression."

Know the Symptoms

Postpartum depression is different from the Daddy Blues, which many new dads can experience, says Dr. Courtenay. "With normal stress or the Daddy Blues, a guy's going to feel better when he gets a little extra sleep, goes to the gym, or has lunch with a friend. But with depression, these things won't make him feel better. The symptoms are more severe and last longer. If the 'blues' last more than two or three weeks, it's probably depression—and a man should get help from a mental health professional who specializes in working with men. Untreated depression only worsens."

"A lot of times men may withdraw by working more, playing sports, and doing things to avoid what's going on," says Dr. Hibbert. She says other symptoms might include low or no energy, feeling unmotivated, and experiencing changes in weight and appetite or sleep.

"[With men] there's lot more risk for alcohol or substance use, and they might experience physical symptoms—internalizing their depression and it comes out as headaches or stomach problems," says Dr. Hibbert. There's also more of a risk of violent or impulsive behavior. Men tend to not want to talk about it and acknowledge that [this is happening] so that internal stress can come out as violence or anger, she says.

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Encouraging Him To Get Help

If you think your partner or a loved one is suffering from this form of depression, encourage them to get help for the sake of their health, and the overall well-being of the family. "Left untreated, we know that postpartum mood disorders often worsen—and they can result in damaging, long-term consequences for a man, his marriage, and his entire family," says Dr. Courtenay. "Research consistently shows that a father's postpartum depression has a negative and long-term impact on the psychological, social, and behavioral development of his children—especially boys. We see this in children as young as two, all the way through adolescence, and into young adulthood. This remains true, regardless of whether the mother is depressed. If both parents are depressed, the child's development is even more severely disrupted."

Often the man's partner, a family member or a close friend is going to notice that something's wrong. If they can try to get him to open up, that would be a good way to start, says Dr. Hibbert. But she acknowledges it's hard to make anyone to go to treatment if they aren't willing. Online support is a great resource for men, like SadDaddy.com or PostPartumDads.org.

Getting Treatment

Research shows that talk therapy is very effective in treating depression, as is talk therapy in combination with medication. But there are lots of treatments that range from traditional to alternative. The important thing is that a man get help, preferably from a licensed mental health professional and one who specializes in working with men, says Dr. Courtenay.

Keep trying until you find the mental health treatment that's right for you, say Dr. Hibbert. "We tell men, 'You're not alone, it's not you fault, you're not to blame.' Dads might just think, 'I'm a bad Dad,' but no one should have to feel that way. If there are treatments available and they work—which they do—men should do them because otherwise this depression can go on for a long time."

"The important thing to remember is that all of the negative consequences of PPND are avoidable," says Dr. Courtenay. "Although it's a very serious—and sometimes life-threatening—condition, with proper treatment and support, men can fully recover from PPND. Getting help can save a man's life—or his marriage. And if a father can't do it for himself, he should get help for the well-being of his child. Men need to recognize that depression is a medical condition – it's not a weakness of character. For a man to admit he's depressed isn't unmanly or admitting defeat. It's taking charge of his life."

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